How Being Sleep Deprived Alters a Brain Connection That Causes Fear and Anxiety

I’m eager to investigate this for my daughter. She’s begun having sleep issues and increased anxiety at school. I’m curious to see if a connection emerges.

“This poses the question: How can a few lost hours of sleep have such a drastic effect on our brains and emotional (dis)functioning? To answer this, a team of neuroscientists at the Southwest University — led by Dr. Pan Feng — investigated the relationship between sleep and fear consolidation. They hypothesized that sleep deprivation is linked to increased sensitization of a particular brain region, the amygdala, which leads to increased reactivity towards negatively perceived stimuli and generates an amplified fear response.

The amygdala has long been known to play a pivotal role in the development and acquisition of fear. Of particular interest to the current investigation, the amygdala’s connections to two other brain regions called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and the insula, have been shown to affect this fear-based process.

Much of the clinical research on the vmPFC has pointed to the critical role it plays in emotional regulation. In the presence of a stimulus, the amygdala begins to orchestrate a response. This response, however, cannot be put into action without the approval of the vmPFC. The connection to the vmPFC ultimately results in amygdala activity being reduced.

The insula also takes part in the processing of emotions but unlike the vmPFC, the insula’s connection to the amygdala increases firing of the amygdala. This results in habituation to a negative stimulus. This habituation acts as a driving force for fear acquisition.

These two connections led the team to make two related predictions: Sleep deprivation would be associated with decreased amygdala-vmPFC connectivity; and increased amygdala-insula connectivity.


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